For his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper defied conventional wisdom by updating “A Star Is Born.” But the actor had a clear vision of a gritty and intimate love story/concert movie, and his ace in the hole was Lady Gaga. The chemistry between them as tormented Jack Maine and hard-edged Ally is powerful, and their stirring, live musical performances put us right beside them. The result: early Best Picture Oscar buzz.
It also puts cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan”) back in the running again for his first Oscar. Libatique utilized hand-held (often shot himself), Steadicam, and long tracking shots with two Alexa minis for a naturalistic look. But then he went more tactile for hopeful close-ups during the beginning of their bittersweet relationship.
Neither Libatique nor Cooper had ever shot a love story. They wanted to find a gritty but timeless feel, Libatique said: “Every decision about palette, the style in which we shot, would happen as we went along and discussed other things, like tone or authenticity. Or what the film was about. We both leaned into very early on that this was ultimately a love story… that was our objective and our best achievement.”
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As part of that authenticity, Cooper wanted a close proximity perspective throughout the concert performances and private moments between Jack and Ally. As a result, Libatique quickly got in tune with Jack’s character because he was present with Cooper when he created it. “The color and modulation of the light represented Jack Maine’s world,” the cinematographer said, “his space, his universe. His palette was specific to him represented in cyan and red.”
From the outset, though, when Jack meets Ally performing “La Vie en Rose” at a drag club, Cooper wanted it to feel like a long night where two people start to get to know each other and fall in love. “The color in’ La Vie en Rose’ represented something similar in that it was Ally playing a role in order to perform,” added Libatique. “The palette switches to a mix of those colors from Jack’s world combined to create the magenta of Ally’s pop persona. The ideas culminate on a neutrality and white light of sobriety in the final performance [of ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’].”
Coming off a concert, Jack doesn’t want to go home. He needs a drink and winds up in the drag club, where former server Ally performs the signature Edith Piaf song that’s become a Gaga staple. “For us, the magic was her performance of that song and just the things that she likes to do,” Libatique said. “I got a note while we were pre-lighting that scene that she wants to jump on the bar and that I should find a place that’s safe for her to pull herself up. She’s so attuned to performance and theatrics and that was her idea to lay in front of her friend [Anthony Ramos], give him the rose. And then the eye contact with Jack, I think, was Bradley’s idea, and that was a signature moment in that scene when they connect.”
Jack asks Ally to have a drink and he takes her to a cop bar, where she confides that she gave up on a singing career because she refused to change her nose (an homage to Barbra Streisand). But Jack’s a truth seeker and encourages her to pursue her dream, to share her personal truth through her singing. “It’s unstated but she notices him drinking a lot. But then you get a little of her personality with the punch in the face, which he didn’t expect when someone tries to take a picture of Jack,” said Libatique. “What’s an interesting character trait for Ally is how sensitive she is to people invading privacy. And she does it again in the supermarket [with the cashier wanting a picture of him].”
The playful and bright supermarket scene was shot with a Steadicam, as Jack gallantly tries to prevent her bruised hand from swelling with frozen peas and gauze. Then, in the parking lot, he discovers what a gifted songwriter she is when Ally perfectly sizes him up with “Shallow,” the poignant ballad about filling a void and positive change that’s likely Oscar-bound. “He was already smitten and now he’s in love. And it culminates with him dropping her off and you get the classic ‘A Star is Born’ line: ‘I just want to take one last look at you,’ and then her proprietary nose shot,” Libatique said.
This leads to Ally’s breakout performance of “Shallow” (shot live at The Greek Theater) in a very orchestrated moment by Cooper. “That’s where he was very specific,” the cinematographer said. “This woman he just met is dragged onto stage in front of thousands of people to sing a song she wrote with an arrangement she’s never heard before. It’s such a Jack Maine thing to do. It’s movie manipulation in the best possible way. I put a camera on him, a camera on her and we would be there observationally.
“You know she’s gonna go out there and when she finally does, there’s even stages to her performance: When she sings her first verse, she’s one way, when she hits the pre-chorus there’s another; all of a sudden, her voice booms, and when she sings the final, she’s down stage center. And at the very end, she becomes Ally again: She can’t believe what she’s just done.”
Libatique agreed that it was like participating in “A Star Is Born” experience for both Cooper and Gaga: He’s become an accomplished director and she’s become a beguiling actress.